BY LAURA RIGOLOSI
As I sit here at my computer, I could also be video chatting with a relative in Argentina while checking airfare prices, ordering pizza to be delivered in an hour, checking the weather for next weekend, finding an inspirational quote to add to my workshop tomorrow, and checking who the seven dwarves are because it’s been bugging me. And the funny part is, none of this would seem unusual to you! With a smartphone or computer and a good wifi connection, knowledge and information is a click away. Watching my own children attend school from home this past year gave me insight into how much technology is affecting schoolwork. Yes, they are still doing math, still reading, still writing, but there is also this: “Alexa, how do you spell “suggestion?” “Alexa, which fraction is larger- ⅔ or ¾?” Yikes!
When we think about the future, we tend to imagine the remarkable technology that will continue to develop. And so, when thinking about what skills our students need to thrive in the 21st century, the gut response is more tech skills, more computer savviness. But acquiring more tech skills can only get us so far. What students need is the ability to think critically, and the ability to collaborate with diverse thinkers. To do this, our students need to be taught how to connect and empathize with others.
When I think about students who have really stood out to me, from middle school to graduate school, I think of the students who could work with anyone — the ones that helped their classmates shine bright. Those are the students I remember the most. I’d like to make a case that it is possible to teach this, or put structures in place to teach students to think outside of themselves. To teach students the importance of getting along with others, and seeing the world from another point of view.
In a recent speech by President Joe Biden, he urges Americans to practice empathy for the health of our country. He reasoned: “For empathy is the fuel of democracy. Let me say that again: Empathy — empathy is the fuel of democracy, a willingness to see each other — not as enemies, neighbors. Even when we disagree, to understand what the other is going through.”
That ability to see “what the other is going through” is something we can teach. And as President Biden points out, this quality that may have once been thought of as a soft skill is one that we need to fuel our democracy.
One way to “understand what the other is going through” is through reading. While I am not an immigrant, I can dive into the lives of Jhumpa Lahiri’s characters in The Namesake and experience Ashima’s deep loneliness in Cambridge, longing for her family, feeling like a foreigner. I can also experience her delight when she realizes she can recreate her favorite street snack from Calcutta — a mixture of peanuts, Rice Krispies, onions, and spices.
As a teacher reading The Namesake in an English or Humanities class, I would invite students to sit with Ashima for a while. Live in her loneliness a bit, stew in the feeling of everything feeling unfamiliar. Offer students a choice for how they can engage with the characters, such as:
There are so many ways to empathize with characters in English or Humanities classes, through reading, writing, and discussions.
Connecting to content areas
In an interview with Life Magazine, James Baldwin explains, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” Baldwin reminds us all what it means to be human, and through literature we can feel each other’s pain, knowing we, too, have experienced the same. While the particulars may be different, we all have hard moments of hardship that have “tormented” us in some way.
But how do we explore this in subject areas other than English or Humanities? Or for students who may not be able to empathize in such a way? For content area classes, Facing History offers a tool to help students forge a connection with something they have read or are exploring.
Using this tool invites students to spend time thinking, probing, and considering how an event or problem is relatable in some way. Facing History suggests using these prompts with the chart above (available for download here):
Students can easily use this tool in History or Science, as they are learning about scientific discoveries or ethical dilemmas involved in scientific explorations. If we want to help our students become 21st century thinkers, we have to create scenarios in which they are stepping outside of themselves, extending into another’s world in some way. This is what will help students build ideas together. This is what will make our students think more complexly.
Our equations can always be situated in the real world, which offers our young people another perspective.
Another way to teach empathy in all subject areas is to normalize students helping each other, teaching one another, and working together to solve problems. Teaching students how to teach their classmates signals to them that you value collaboration, and that the ability to teach and work together are significant, valued characteristics. Encouraging students to step into a teaching role will also help them gain a greater awareness of the topic at hand — when students take on the qualities of a teacher, they are not only learning how to work with their classmates, but simultaneously becoming more of an expert on the subject.
Technology will continue to develop at a rapid pace, and knowledge will continue to be accessible to all of us. Creating situations where students learn to step outside of themselves is what will propel our students into more complex and critical ways of thinking. We must continue to focus on how we can help our students think about each other and our world, and encourage them to collaborate and share ideas. As President Biden put it, this is what fuels our democracy. This is how we will stay 21st century ready.
BY LAURA RIGOLOSI
James Popham, our favorite assessment guru, explains that “the right data will, in fact, help teachers do a better job with students. Those are the data we need.” It makes sense that if we are using data to inform our instruction, that data needs to reveal authentic learning.
When I teach a Methods or Content Area Literacy course, I want to know what my students know about unit planning or principles of backward design before we dive in. My students are typically education majors and have been taking courses for two years, so it is likely that they are already familiar with the principles of Understanding by Design (UbD).
On the first day of classes, I poll my students using a survey that asks how much they know about unit planning and Understanding by Design. In theory, this helps determine how much class time I need to reserve for unit planning, and how many lessons I need to design to help my students unpack the UbD principles and templates. I am also modeling what good teachers do: assessing what my students already know by using a baseline assessment that will inform my instruction.
The surveys typically reveal that my students feel confident with unit planning and are familiar with Understanding by Design. Good! I continue with my curriculum.
Inevitably, the first major assignment of the course is a unit plan, and the students who were confident in their day one surveys are suddenly flooding my email with questions: What exactly are ‘essential questions’? What do we mean by ‘skills’? How much do we need to ‘differentiate’? And how do you really ‘differentiate’ in a unit?
And suddenly, I need to pause, recalibrate, and create lessons around principles that my students previously indicated they already knew. This means pivoting and redesigning lessons to make room for more unit planning content. During this process, there is a part of me that wonders: um, why wasn’t this clear when they filled out the baseline assessment on this topic? I could have planned for this.
The same is true when teaching high school students. When teaching high school seniors, I tried to be a proactive and responsive teacher by polling my students at the beginning of the year, to find out what they knew about essay writing — and wouldn’t you know, they checked “yes” to knowing all aspects of the essay. Yes to knowing how to write a thesis statement. Yes to citing and explaining evidence. Yes to having experience writing introductions and conclusions. Great! I thought, until it was time for our first essay and suddenly I was inundated with requests and concerns around our essay assignment. I had to rethink and redo my plans, and squeeze in additional lessons around essay writing.
Once again, my baseline poll gave me a false sense of what students know. They may have known what these writing concepts are in theory, but still needed support in their execution. Had I not polled my students at all, I would have assumed they needed more support in writing, and would have researched and created more thoughtful writing lessons. Instead, I relied on my baseline assessment and thus my essay writing lessons felt rushed, as we were closing out the semester and trying to meet deadlines.
Using data from baseline assessments can be helpful in informing instruction, but in my case, I was not asking the right questions.
Answers vs. action
The next time I teach an education course, I will instead ask students to actually write out a unit plan as a baseline assessment, instead of asking them about their knowledge and comfort with the concept of unit planning. Similarly, the next time I work with high school students, I will ask them to write an in-class essay to use as a baseline assessment, and use those essays to inform my planning. These student samples will serve as formative assessments, and will give me insight into what my students understand and don’t. From there, I can design lessons tailored to my students’ needs.
Using a baseline assessment can offer very straightforward results, in some courses. Students either know how to graph functions or they don’t; they’ve learned about causes of the Revolutionary War or they haven’t. But when we are using baseline assessments to determine the extent to which students know a topic that they have familiarity with, it would be more helpful to have them produce or write out the assignment, rather than self-assess their knowledge on the topic. This is why I will shift my formative assessment from reflecting on prior knowledge to requesting that students take action to demonstrate their knowledge.
As teachers, we have to be flexible and allow for some spontaneity in our instruction. When we realize that a baseline assessment isn’t accurately revealing what our students understand, we need to be prepared to pivot and shift our instruction to meet them where they are. Baseline assessments can be helpful, but what is more crucial is committing to meeting our students where they are, and uncovering the authentic knowledge that lives within them.
BY LAURA RIGOLOSI
When we ask our students to write reflectively on a topic, we are asking them to think about the topic, and put that thinking on paper. This seemingly small ask can have big effects, including an increased awareness of one’s own thinking and learning.
Why might you ask students to engage in this process? As Dr. Saundra McGuire, LSU chemistry professor and learning expert explains, “learning is about being able to explain something and apply it in other ways.” Reflective writing, then, is a way for students to bring their knowledge to the forefront, creating space for them to explain their ideas and apply them in ways beyond the immediate context. For example, when we are reading a challenging class text in English, such as a Shakespearean play, we want our students to do more than read and interpret that particular Shakespearean text; instead, we want them to have an awareness of how they are reading that play in order to later apply those same reading dispositions to another challenging text.
The more we can help our students understand their own metacognition when reading and learning, the more ownership they have over that learning. This is empowering for our students. Teaching students to be aware of their thinking is the first step in reflective writing — and with this awareness comes the ability to apply thinking patterns to other arenas.
Introducing a double entry journal
When we ask our students to engage in reflective writing, we are trying to peek inside their minds to check if they are understanding key concepts, but also we are trying to help them name their own thinking moves. This is why writing to learn is such an important practice in our teaching — we are using writing as a reflection tool to make students’ thinking visible.
In my two decades of teaching, I’ve seen more graphic organizers than I’d care to admit, and in the end, I always return to the double entry journal when I need students to respond to a text in a reflective way. The double entry journal is the most simple graphic organizer imaginable to help students focus on a particular text, and encourage their thinking around that text.
The goal of the double entry journal, circling back to McGuire, is to be able to explain the text and apply it. Keep in mind, when we say “text” it could be a broad use of the term, including math problems, an historical event, a quote from a text, an image, etc.
In an article I co-wrote with Jacqui Stolzer, a fellow K-12 coach, we discussed how “double entry journals include two components: a column on the left, partially filled out with quotes from the text, and a column on the right, which is open for viewers to share their thoughts. Returning to the ideas presented in UDL [Universal Design for Learning], a double entry journal that includes specific lines from the text is useful for students who have central executive challenges, but in reality, everyone can benefit from the text references.”
While the double entry journal is a template for reflective writing, teachers can differentiate this tool by pulling out specific quotes for students, or by giving students free reign to respond to quotes that strike them.
Modeling the double entry journal
Below is an example of a double entry journal that I wrote as a way to show my thinking about a text. In my entry here, I share a quote in the left column that I find provocative, and in the right column, I unpack what it means to me. A student reading this double entry journal might be surprised by all of the reading thoughts I have after reading Bateson’s brief line, but this is the point! We want students to see that my brain is active when I am reading, and in this example I am trying to name some of the thinking moves I am making as a reader.
After sharing a double entry model like this with students, I would ask questions such as: What do you notice I am doing as a writer in my double entry response? What moves am I making? My example is a bit of a stream of consciousness, and this shows students how I can engage with a text in complex and somewhat messy ways. And that is okay! Writing, learning, and reflecting tend to be messy and nonlinear paths. While students may not write as much as I do in the example above, offering them an advanced model can demonstrate the possibilities and multiple ways in which they can respond to a text using this format.
Writing your own model for your students and asking them to notice and name the different ways you responded to the text can be instructive in two ways: students are able to see what we mean by “reflective writing,” and they will glean more understanding of the text through your reflective writing.
When students are asked to write a response to a quote, an equation, an historical event, or a math problem, they have to find something to say. They have to breathe life into that text — both to help themselves understand it more, and to realize how it changes and influences their perspective. This is how reflective writing is a useful tool; it is a type of writing that nudges students to notice what they are thinking, and to document it for others to see. By naming what they think, students are also teaching themselves what they know, and owning their own questions.
BY LAURA RIGOLOSI & SHERRISH HOLLOMAN
Problems. There’s no shortage of them these days — the pandemic has spurred countless challenges and intense despair; there are too many to list. Teaching during the pandemic has been a challenge in and of itself, as we are always looking for ways for students to be engaged with curricula and drive their learning, and that’s hard to do whether we’re teaching in person or remotely.
If you think back to your college or grad school days, you may recall the constructivist thinkers, such as Jean Piaget, who believed that students learn best when they construct their own learning. Problem- and project-based learning offers teachers an opportunity to do just that — instead of telling students the answers, you can create a learning environment in which students learn through discovery, thinking, tinkering, reflecting, and developing answers on their own.
We may already be familiar with ways that we can bring this type of learning to in-person classrooms, but it can also be delivered to students who are learning in remote or blended environments.
Problem-based learning vs. project-based learning
Project-based learning is situated in real-life learning. The Buck Institute for Education defines project-based learning as a “teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem or challenge.” If you ever walk into a classroom and see students working on a project with an exciting buzz in the room, chances are, their teachers have designed a project-based learning task.
In our own lives, we know that when working on a project, we often discover a problem we didn’t realize we had — but once it surfaces, it demands a solution. (Remember those early pandemic days when we were acclimating to teaching remotely, but also trying to solve the problem of having no dedicated teaching space at home?) In teaching, this idea rings true, too. As we are learning more about a topic, we may discover a problem alongside our students, and this is the breeding ground for an exciting new project. This is the foundation of problem-based learning.
Problem-based learning also offers students real-life learning opportunities, as well as the chance “to think creatively and bring their knowledge to bear in unique ways” (2020 Schunk, p. 64). Problem-based learning can look differently depending on the content and grade level, but often includes group discussions that allow for multiple perspectives on a topic, a simulated situation that involves role playing, or group work that includes both collaborative work and time to complete tasks individually.
Problem-based learning promotes autonomous learning, self-assessment skills, planning time, project work, and oral and written expression skills. According to a July 2020 article from the Hechinger Report, problem-based learning has gained tremendous momentum, because it allows students to work more freely and at their own pace — a key advantage when learning remotely. In problem-based learning, the content and skills are organized around problems, rather than as a hierarchical list of topics. It’s also inherently learner-centered because the learner actively creates their own knowledge as they attempt to solve the problem.
Putting the “Problem” into Practice
As former English teachers, we both understand the challenge of putting new professional learning into practice. For teachers who need a refresher on how to design a problem-based learning experience for their students, Problem Based Learning: Six Steps to Design, Implement and Assess breaks down the steps to move PBL into practice as follows:
To help put these problem-based steps into perspective, we can look to our recent work with partners from a high school in the South Bronx. The chemistry team there decided to use an anti-racist lens while addressing a problem that was very real to their students — fireworks. During the summer of 2020, there was a record number of firework incidents in New York City. According to an article in the New York Times, the city received over 1,700 fireworks complaints in the first half of June alone. Our partners used this problem as an opportunity for students to research fireworks from multiple lenses, and imagine how they might present their findings and recommendations to local officials. After all, shouldn’t New York Governor Andrew Cuomo hear from high school students in the Bronx about the effects fireworks have on their communities?
Here’s what the framework might look like in this example:
From here, we can imagine the possibilities for this framework, considering how students might address the underlying problem from different perspectives and content areas:
Teaching and learning throughout a global pandemic has presented more than its share of challenges. Out of necessity, tremendous innovation has taken place with the use of technology, pedagogy, and curriculum. With problem-based learning, we can continue this innovation in our classrooms, offering our students opportunities to solve real world problems, demonstrate critical thinking, and collaborate with their peers. We would love to hear what problem-based learning tasks you are designing for your classrooms!
BY LAURA RIGOLOSI
I have been an educator for over twenty years, but I can still remember being a first-year teacher and asking my students to pair read Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. I was nervous, and anticipated comments like, “Miss, aren’t we too old to read aloud? And in pairs? That’s little kid stuff.” But after I modeled the process with another teacher, I broke my students off into pairs and, within minutes, my ninth grade students were reading with one another. Students plopped themselves throughout my classroom, on the floor and at desks, and were taking turns reading aloud and talking to each other. I glanced around the room in amazement at the pairs reading softly, talking, giggling a bit, looking at each other, looking at their books. This is what school should look like, I thought to myself. This is what learning looks like. This is what working together looks like. I felt tears well up in my eyes witnessing reading as a social activity, and was never more certain of my career choice.
This moment embodies what I love about teaching. But anyone who teaches will tell you that this moment represents a mere slice of teaching life. Teaching is also grading papers, homework, projects, and everything in between. And at the end of each term, every student needs to have a grade next to their name. What plagues so many of us is how to grade students as fairly as possible — how can we assess students frequently enough to give them multiple opportunities to demonstrate their learning, and to inform our lesson planning?
This assessment dilemma is real for me. In addition to my work at CPET and as a literacy consultant, I am also an adjunct professor, and my roster this term has doubled in size. I know how important it is to use formative assessments in my classroom — James Popham says it best: “Formative assessment works!” — but the only way formative assessment really works is when the teacher efficiently grades and provides feedback in a timely manner. Nobody sets out to be that teacher who students refer to as "the one who never gives anything back" (cue student eye roll).
I reached out to my colleagues at CPET for advice on how to grade formative assessments effectively and efficiently, and will share with you some of their pragmatic tips:
While I may not love grading papers as much as I love watching my students read to each other or interact with one another as curious learners, I know that assessments matter to my students, and they guide my lesson designs. Reading our students’ work is an effective step in meeting their needs.
What methods have worked well for you? We’d love to hear the ways in which you’re effectively managing your time and assessments — comment below or tag us online @tccpet!
By LAURA RIGOLOSI
In addition to the excitement (and anxiety, let’s be real) of beginning a new year and a new teaching semester, we all now have the added worry about how we will adapt or continue with our hybrid classrooms or remote teaching, without meeting our students face-to-face. Like many of you, I am prepping to teach online this spring, and my courses will be a mix of asynchronous and synchronous instruction — terms I had never considered before teaching during a pandemic.
There are some perks to teaching online of course, particularly the lack of commute and the choice to dress professionally enough for a Zoom meeting. But preparing to teach online has spurred me to research the best practices for teaching remotely. I know what an engaged class looks like in person, but will I be able to match that same level of engagement in an online setting? To be clear, I believe an engaged classroom is one where the students are doing the deep thinking, discussing, writing, and reading throughout the class. For so many teachers, classroom discussions are not only one of the greatest joys in teaching, they are essential for student learning and engagement! And most teachers are evaluated through Charlotte Danielson's Framework for Teaching, which highlights teachers whose students are actively problem-solving and discussing complex concepts. So, how can we have meaningful class discussions remotely? Is it possible?
As I listened to Teaching Today’s episode on this topic, I kept pausing to jot down notes that will support my instruction. The episode’s panelists — Courtney Brown, Dr. Cristina Romeo Compton, Dr. Sherrish Holloman, Dr. Roberta Lenger Kang, Dr. Marcelle Mentor, and Brian Veprek — left me with takeaways that I can implement in my own online classrooms, to help promote discussions during a time of distance learning.
Who’s doing the asking?
When we create space for students and encourage them to ask questions about our curriculum, we are putting students in the driver’s seat, and allowing their curiosities to drive the curriculum. This is a way for students to buy into the learning, and as Cristina notes, encouraging students to ask questions about the curriculum or texts is a powerful way to promote engagement. The importance of having students generate their own questions (instead of replying to a teacher-created question) is punctuated by the concept developed by Roberta and Brian: when students are the ones who are driving the learning, there is no need to worry about student buy-in.
Speaking of students asking questions…
Grade school students often ask “why?” and are frequently less self-conscious about asking questions. Secondary or adult learners can be more guarded and do not always feel comfortable sharing their questions or wonderings. Teaching students which questions are the most fruitful for a discussion is a great technique for all ages. The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) is one option for teaching students how to practice asking a variety of questions about a particular topic. This protocol encourages students to pose both “closed” or “open” questions, and then students decipher the different types. No matter how teachers use this protocol, student questions often lead to more engagement and deeper content knowledge.
Small group discussions
Sharing in a low-stakes way
In the timeless Mind in Society, Vygotsky (1978) advocated for student discussion explaining, “By giving our students practice in talking with others, we give them frames for thinking on their own.” In the spirit of giving students “frames for thinking on their own,” having them discuss academic ideas in small groups is a less intimidating way for students to share their thoughts. For synchronous classes, Zoom breakout rooms can replace small group discussions. Creating Zoom breakout rooms, perhaps after a jigsaw reading or as a way to practice sharing in a low-stakes way, is a way to replicate small group discussions. Teachers can join each breakout room to listen in and observe, just as they would circulate in a classroom. Of course, teachers can be concerned that students may get off task in breakout rooms, but this is the same issue we face in in-person classrooms — we can’t be everywhere at once. As Roberta points out, we aren’t really in control — we only have the illusion of control.
Familiar breakout groups
Don’t switch it up! If you’re teaching a group of students for the first time and the class meets synchronously via Zoom, Courtney suggests keeping breakout groups the same, at least for the first part of the year. While the instinct may be to switch groups so students can get to know each other, starting the year with online or blended learning is different from anything most of our students have experienced. If issues in groups arise, then it may make sense to revisit grouping, but if possible, try to keep the groups the same for an entire unit — maybe even for the semester. This will help students build a community within the group as their interaction with other classmates is so much more limited. And as with any group work, it is always important to discuss norms, expectations, and set routines for small (and big) group discussions.
Even though you’ll be able to see students' faces through little boxes on your computer screen during big group discussions in a synchronous class, you may have a harder time “reading the room” — anticipate having to insert writing breaks and purposeful pauses in order to give students time to process and participate.
One way to help students notice their thinking during a discussion (and to encourage them to stay on task) is to have them share or post their discussion notes. This is also an effective way for teachers to notice patterns and themes that are emerging in student thinking. How can we take notes during an online discussion?
If students are already using Google, asking them to utilize a Google Doc for notetaking (perhaps one ongoing document that they add to for each discussion) is a practical strategy. In Google Docs, students can take turns as the notetaker, and others can add to the document if anything is missing. As Brian points out, teachers can notice who is participating in taking notes on their discussion by checking the doc’s version history. This is a way to see if students are, in fact, all adding to the notes. In addition to joining breakout rooms, viewing groups’ Google docs in real-time is a way to gauge which group is on their way, who needs help, and how much time they may need to continue their discussion.
Chatting within Zoom
For full class discussions, asking students to write in Zoom’s chat feature is a simple way to capture students’ ideas in real-time. At the end of the Zoom call, Marcelle recommends that the teacher copies and posts the chat on their class website as a record of notes from that day (much like a chart paper of class notes on the classroom wall). I’ve been concerned about how I would capture class discussions the way I would in a physical classroom — now, we can all write our ideas into the chat, and voila, there is a record of our class! But remember — the Zoom call has to end before the chat can be copied.
Discussions don’t always have to include talking
One of the perks of asynchronous learning is that it can allow for more flexibility, and help lessen any anxiety students feel about live video calls. Using platforms such as Padlet or Google Jamboards are alternatives to having shared, written discussions. Marcelle suggests a quote-centered protocol for moments like this — students are asked to share (in writing) quotes from the class text, and then their classmates are asked to respond to the quotes, taking time to consider why the quotes are significant. This is not only a helpful option for having a discussion asynchronously, but also a chance to give students a break from face-to-face interactions.
Protocols can be your discussion friend
Providing simple discussion frames with sentence starters like “I believe this means...”, “This is significant because…”, or “As a next step, perhaps…”, offers students a meaningful way to discuss a topic, or process a text or problem set. Students can begin by jotting down their ideas in writing, which will help prepare them to share their ideas in a discussion — asynchronous or otherwise. Not sure where to begin? Try our What, So What, Now What? tool that supports student observation, analysis, and inquiry.
Low-tech options require your imagination
Marcelle suggests using a phone app such as WhatsApp to send out discussion prompts to students, and asking them to write back within the app. Teachers can then collate the responses and report back to the class what others have written. Another low-tech option involves breaking up your class structure, pairing students up, asking them to exchange phone numbers, and having them call each other on the phone to have a conversation on a particular topic! Let them write up their conversation, and post or share it with you or the class.
Similarly, you can pair students up to explain the written assignment, and ask them to write letters to their partner, then send via USPS! It will cost students about $.50, but what a delight to receive a letter in the mail! (Of course, there is no way of screening letters, so you may need to set up some parameters). It seems ironic to suggest these systems of communication for an online class, however students (and teachers!) may appreciate these alternative ways of discussing concepts.
After listening to the Teaching Today team and reflecting on their conversation, I am recommitted to believing that meaningful classroom discussions can still happen during distance learning. And while I am still concerned about teaching online (what if my students have weak wifi? What if my wifi is wonky? What if my own kids are having a difficult time working independently while I’m teaching?), I also realize these issues are somewhat out of my control. I now feel more confident incorporating discussions into my online classrooms — even while teaching in a blazer and yoga pants.